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Halloween: Celtic Origins, Samhain, and Superstitions

Suzette has been an online writer for over eight years. Her articles focus on everything from jewelry to holiday festivities.

Learn the Celtic origins of Halloween.

Learn the Celtic origins of Halloween.

Halloween or All Hallows' Eve

When we think about Halloween, we think about ghosts, goblins, jack-o'-lanterns, witches, bonfires, haunted houses, costumes, and trick-or-treating. But did you know that the origins of these traditions reach back to the Celtics of England, Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Brittany, France? Halloween is much more than just costumes and candy; it has a rich and interesting history.

More than 2,000 years ago, the Celtics celebrated their new year on November 1 with the festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). This day was the most important in their calendar because it marked the end of summer, the fall harvest, and the beginning of winter—a new year in their calendar.

Because it signaled the beginning of the cold, dark winter, it became a time of the year associated with death.

The Celts believed that on the night before the new year (All Hallows' Eve), the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, and the otherworldly spirits could cross over into the real world.

Therefore, when they celebrated on October 31, on the eve of their new year, they believed ghosts of the dead had returned to earth. Supernatural entities, for example, fairies and witches, became associated with Samhain. To combat the ghosts that appeared and pulled pranks on them, the Celts began using humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.

Celts also believed that ghosts made it easier for the Druids—Celtic priests, poets, scientists and scholars all rolled into one—to make predictions about the future. These prophecies offered an important source of comfort and direction in a dangerous and volatile Celtic world during the long, dark winter.

To make sacrifices to the Celtic deities, Druids built huge sacred bonfires where people gathered to burn crops and animals. During this celebration, Celts wore costumes of animal heads and skins.

They also attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When this celebration ended, they re-lit their hearth fires at home from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the autumn and coming winter.

It is important to note that although Samhain is a pagan holiday, it is not satanic. The ancient Celts did not worship anything resembling the Christian devil and had no concept of it.

It was the Catholic Church that came up with the concept of the devil and began persecuting so-called witches in its search to blot out Satan.

Learn the Roman influence on Halloween.

Learn the Roman influence on Halloween.

The Roman Influence

By 43 AD, the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory in the UK and parts of Ireland. For 400 years, they ruled the Celtic lands. Of course, they would influence the Celtic Samhain celebration.

First was Feralia, a day in late October when Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was the commemoration of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The apple was the symbol of Pomona, so this fruit was incorporated into the celebration of Samhain. This is where we get the tradition of "bobbing for apples" today.

In keeping with the Celtic tradition of the ghosts of the dead returning on Samhain, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome on May 13, 609 AD, in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs' Day was established in the western Roman Catholic church.

Then, Pope Gregory (731-741) expanded this festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs and moved the observance from May 13 to November 1.

By the 9th century, the Christian influence had spread to Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with older Celtic rights and religious beliefs, as well as that of Samhain.

In 1000 AD, the Roman Catholic church made November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. The church was trying to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a church-sanctioned holiday.

Therefore, today we celebrate All Saints' Day on November 1 and All Souls' Day on November 2.

All Souls' Day was celebrated like Samhain with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. In Mexico, for example, this day is known as El Día de Los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead.

The word Halloween dates back to about 1745 in Scotland. It became known as a hallowed evening or holy evening. It comes from the Scottish term for All Hallows' Eve, the evening before All Hallows' Day. The Scottish word "eve" means even, and this contracted to e'en or een—and so over time, All Hallows' E(v)en evolved to Halloween.

Drawing showing "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," by Washington Irving

Drawing showing "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," by Washington Irving

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving is a beloved American short story from The Sketch Book. Written in 1820 while Irving was traveling in England, the story has become an enduring favorite around Halloween time. Several movies based on this story have been made, as well.

Irving's story is set in 1790 in the Dutch settlement of Sleepy Hollow, New York, which had a reputation at the time for its ghosts and haunting atmosphere.

The main characters are Icabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. Icabod disappears from Sleepy Hollow on Halloween and is believed to have been captured by the Headless Horseman, never again to be seen.

Jack-o'-lanterns are a Halloween tradition from the American colonies.

Jack-o'-lanterns are a Halloween tradition from the American colonies.

Halloween in the American Colonies

Halloween came to the American colonies via the English, Scottish, and Irish as they settled into the new colonies. In America, the celebration of Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England because of the strict Protestant belief system there. The Puritans and Pilgrims did not believe in parties, dancing, or celebrating holidays, so Halloween became more common in the colony of Maryland and those colonies in the south.

As different European ethnic groups came to America, as well as traditions of the Native Americans, Halloween traditions blended, and a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge.

"Play parties" at Halloween time were public events held to celebrate the harvest where neighbors would share stories of the dead and tell each others' fortunes as well as dance and sing.

Colonial Halloween celebrations also featured telling ghost stories as well as mischief-making of all kinds.

Halloween in the 19th Century

By the mid-19th century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.

By the late 19th century, America was flooded with new immigrants, especially the Irish, who had great Halloween traditions. Taking from the English and Irish, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, which eventually became the tradition of today's "trick or treating."

The tradition of carving a jack-o'-lantern dates back to the Irish tradition.

During this time of celebration, many young women believed they could hope for and determine who they would marry. Many of these traditions began in Ireland and throughout the UK.

In 18th century Ireland, for example, a cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it.

In Scotland, fortune-tellers recommended that single young women name a hazelnut for each of their suitors and then toss the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding represented the girl's future husband.

The opposite was also believed: The nut that burned away symbolized a love that would not last.

Young women also tossed apple peels over their shoulders, hoping the peels would fall on the floor in the shape of their future husband's initials. They also tried to learn about their futures by peering at egg yolks in a bowl of water.

Also, at this time, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about local communities and neighborly get-togethers that focused on ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft.

Halloween in the 20th Century and Beyond

At the turn of the 20th century, Halloween parties were for both children and adults and became the most popular way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes.

Parents were encouraged by local leaders and newspapers to take anything "frightening" or "grotesque" out of Halloween celebrations because of the children. Therefore, Halloween lost most of its superstitions and religious overtones by the beginning of the 20th century.

During the 1920s and '30s, Halloween became a secular but local community-centered holiday with parades and town-wide parties. From this time on to the 1960s, the centuries-old practice of trick or treating was revived, and it became an inexpensive way for a community to share in a Halloween celebration. This was when Halloween became mostly a children's holiday.

Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween. It has become the largest commercial holiday, second only to Christmas.

Trick-or-treating is an American tradition.

Trick-or-treating is an American tradition.

Where Did Trick-or-Treating Come From?

Trick-or-treating as we know it today actually dates back to early All Souls' Day parades in England. Poor people would beg for food, and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for families dead relatives.

This was encouraged by the Church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food for roaming ghosts and spirits.

The practice became known as "going a souling" and was eventually taken up by children who would visit houses and be given ale, food, and money.

The tradition of dressing for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes.

To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks outside after dark so the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.

To keep ghosts away from their homes, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter the house.

Trick-or-treating that we take part in today, mostly for children dressed up in costumes and seeking candy, has become a relatively recent tradition. Pranks, such as soaping windows, have been part of Halloween traditions and are well established.

There are many Halloween traditions we still practice today.

There are many Halloween traditions we still practice today.

Halloween Superstitions

Halloween has always been a holiday filled with mystery, magic, and superstition. The Celts, to encourage friendly spirits and ghosts to visit, would set places at the dinner table for them and leave treats on doorsteps and along the road. They would also light candles to let the ghosts of loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.

Halloween ghosts today are fearsome and malevolent and superstitions are scarier. That is because these customs come from the Medieval era—not Celtic times.

During the Middle Ages, many people believed that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into cats. We don't walk under ladders, we avoid breaking mirrors, and we avoid stepping on the cracks in the road. All of these superstitions have their roots in the Halloween of the Middle Ages.

Today, Halloween celebrations are transforming once again. It is again becoming an adult holiday and not only a holiday for children. Many adults are masquerading, like Mardi Gras, in large American cities. Elaborate Halloween decorations are on display in front yards and are second only to Christmas displays here in America.

Haunted houses and haunted cornfield mazes have become a popular way to experience Halloween for kids and adults of all ages. Halloween has grown again to be a popular seasonal celebration not to miss. And don't forget the horror and "slasher" movies that are so popular during the Halloween season.

Halloween has grown again to be a popular seasonal celebration not to miss.

Halloween has grown again to be a popular seasonal celebration not to miss.

More Halloween Superstitions

Over the centuries, Halloween superstitions have been passed down. Here are just a few of them:

  • Burning a candle inside a jack-o-lantern on Halloween keeps evil spirits and demons away.
  • If the candle suddenly goes out in a jack-o'-lantern, it is believed a ghost has come to call.
  • Always burn new candles on Halloween for the best of luck, and do not burn Halloween candles at any other time of the year. It brings bad luck or strange unexplainable things that will happen to you.
  • Gazing into a flame of a Halloween candle will enable you to peer into the future.
  • Girls who carry a lamp to a spring of water on Halloween can see their future husbands in the reflection.
  • It is good luck to burn an orange-colored candle on Halloween.
  • If you hear footsteps behind you on Halloween night, do not turn around because it may be Death itself. If you look death in the eye, it will hasten your demise.
  • Christians believe that cats are linked with bad luck, especially black cats.
  • Crossing paths with a black cat on Halloween is a sign of a witch nearby. Cats are witches' familiars, which means witches can turn themselves into black cats.
  • Hold your breath when you pass a cemetery so evil spirits cannot enter your body.
  • When passing a cemetery, turn your pockets inside out to make sure you don't bring home ghosts in your pockets.
  • If you see a ghost, walk around it nine times, and it will disappear.
  • Children born on Halloween are believed to have the gift of second sight and the power to ward off evil spirits.
  • If you see a spider on Halloween night, it means the spirit of the dead one is watching you.
  • Ringing bells on Halloween will chase away evil spirits.
  • Walk around your house three times backward and three times counterclockwise before sunset on Halloween to ward off evil spirits.
  • Put your clothes on inside out and walk backward on Halloween night to meet a witch.
Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 01, 2015:

Lizzy: So glad you enjoyed reading this. This is a fun time of the year. I like you bonfire idea - a sweeping cleaning as a cleansing ritual. I like that!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on November 01, 2015:

What an interesting history. I knew a fair amount of the history, but you have contributed greatly to my education.

Halloween was always my favorite holiday. It started with my parents, who a couple of times dressed up to answer the door, and took home movies of the trick-or-treaters, who were quite startled by the bright lights and the sight of adults in costume.

When my kids were young, we used to make a 'graveyard' on the front lawn and play a haunted house sound effects recording with the speaker in the window. Sometimes I'd dress up to answer the door, too. And my ex-husband had a scary "mad scientist" whole-head mask he'd put on for that task. LOL

Fun memories...

I do celebrate it more as Samhain these days, sometimes with a bonfire to get rid of old 'stuff,' like paperwork that might overload the shredder. ;) It's a cleansing ritual of sorts, but I didn't do it this year, as it was rather windy.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 01, 2015:

Genna: Happy Samhain! So glad you enjoyed this. I thought the superstitious beliefs were interesting and at the same time hilarious. Hope you had a Happy HALLOWEEN!

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on October 26, 2015:

You did such a wonderful job with this article, Suzette, and meticulous research. I loved the bullet points on superstitious beliefs -- fascinating. Halloween is a fav holiday of mine, and you have given it enjoyment, depth, and color -- all in one.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 18, 2015:

Marcour: thanks so much for your comments and for reading this. I thought the $6 billion amount spent on Halloween was a gross exaggeration myself, but several sources used this figure do I guess it's true. I like Halls ween but I don't get way into it looks he some do. It is a fun thing me of my he year so Happy Halloween!

Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on October 16, 2015:

Dear Suzette,

I learned so much on Halloween traditions and superstitions between your informative post and Martie's.

Spending six billion dollars yearly is outrageous- it staggers me actually.

Hope you're enjoying your teaching and great to see you. Love, Maria

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 16, 2015:

Devika: So glad you read this and found it interesting. I have been substitute teaching lately and have not been on HP very much. Glad to "see" you here!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 16, 2015:

Hi Suzette Halloween time is interesting. You enlightened me on so much more about Halloween. I haven't seen much from you lately. Take care now!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 16, 2015:

Martie: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and thanks for the link. When I went trick or treating as a child I also took a can with me to gather money for UNICEF ( Workd wide children's fun). So in my day we also raised money for that charity. I agree with you and commend you for your idea.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 16, 2015:

Vellur: So glad you enjoyed reading this and thanks so much for your visit.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 16, 2015:

MizBejabbers: Yes, the medieval Church was the problem. This really was a lovely celebration to the Celts and who doesn't believe in spirits on Halloween? The Church has always taken things so seriously, and definitely has no sense of humor. LOL! I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. I too come from the time of razor blades in treats - I missed out on the laxatives thank goodness. LOL!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 16, 2015:

Hi Faith: So great to hear from you. I have been away from HP for a while now. I have been substitute teaching and come home a bit tired. The kids keep me hopping, but I love it. LOL! I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and enjoy this celebration at this time of year. I would always read Sleepy Hollow to my students of Halloween Eve day. They always enjoyed it. Have fun with your wee ones this Halloween - it is so fun for kids. Happy Halloween!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 16, 2015:

Emese: Thank you so much for reading this and I am glad you enjoyed it. It is a fun celebration at this time of the year.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 16, 2015:

Thanks Bill and I am glad you enjoyed reading this and found it interesting. Happy Halloween!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 16, 2015:

John: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. How interesting that Halloween is becoming popular in Australia. With its close links to England, I am surprise Australians have not celebrated this sooner. So glad you are enjoying this celebration and Happy Halloween!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 16, 2015:

Hi Mike: so glad you enjoyed reading this. It is that time of year! LOL! I haven't been on HP much as I am substitute teaching and I come home a bit tired. You have been on quite a writing spree with your Nuelle stories. I will have to check them out. Thanks so much for your visit.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 16, 2015:

Thanks Nell. You are so supportive as always. I have to tell you that I have found out that I definitely have a Celtic background. I did one of the DNA kits and low and behold I have 43% genes from Great Britain, 7% from Ireland, and this is most interesting 6% from the Iberian Peninsula. So I am interested in anything Celtic. The rest of me is German and Italian. LOL!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 16, 2015:

Kristen: Thanks so much for reading this and I am glad you enjoyed it. I am fascinated by anything Celtic or of Celtic origin. I have found out it is part of my heritage and so I have been researching Celts for some time. Thank you so much for stopping by.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on October 12, 2015:

Interesting and informative hub about Halloween, great write.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on October 12, 2015:

Leave it to the medieval church to mess up a good thing. Seriously, Halloween was very a enjoyable holiday when I was a child, and we kids could safely trick or treat. Then vicious malevolent types started putting razor blades and laxatives into the children's treats. Sometimes a holiday or event evolves out of necessity. Nice job on the history of Halloween.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on October 12, 2015:

Wow, Suzette, this is all very interesting! I never knew of all the origins of Halloween. I love Halloween and we always had a great time as a child trick or treating. It was my favorite time, being I could get so much candy : ).

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has always been one of my favorites to read around this time of year.

So happy to see you publishing here.

Wonderful hub! Happy Halloween.

Emese Fromm from The Desert on October 12, 2015:

This was very informative. A great history lesson on Halloween; Thank you for sharing.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 12, 2015:

I love it when you give us a history lesson like this one. Thank you...very, very interesting.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on October 11, 2015:

I oved this Suzette. It was all a great history lesson for me as I was aware of very little of this, especially the Celtic origins. Halloween is quite a recent introduction to Australia. As I child I watched movies and tv shows from America and Britain and envied the families in those countries being able to celebrate such an event. I was always a big horror fan. Now that I am an adult it has started to become widely accepted here with people having Halloween parties and children trick or treating...but we still don't get a holiday. Thank you so much for sharing this.

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on October 11, 2015:

Hello Suzette. This is a very colorful presentation, filled with fun facts, and decorated with our friendly ghosts and goblins. I can tell you did a good bit of research. Good to see you back. Now, there is something I have forgotten to say, give me a second and I'll think of it - oh, yes. Trick or Treat!

Happy Halloween.

Nell Rose from England on October 11, 2015:

Great hub Suzette! I love Halloween and all its traditions, this was great!

Martie Coetser from South Africa on October 11, 2015:

A comprehensive and informative hub about Halloween! I'm going to link it to mine. I still believe that Halloween is the ideal event to turn into a fund raising project to the benefit of the poor and the disabled.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on October 11, 2015:

Suzette, this was a great hub on Halloween origins. Real interesting to know.